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Living Treasures from the Past
Sometimes it happens that you read something that few others or even no one else have heard of, and it stays with you for years, forming a kind of internal reference point that anchors your soul through the eras of your life. The name of the book and the author, the plotline and the details of the story may fadebut somewhere inside you, in a secret, quiet place, something of great value that the author knew and confirmed in you still lives. And despite the passage of years and sophistication, all it takes is a brief re-encounter with this mysterious old friend to bring back the old magic of deep knowing.
I dont often get the chance to share my favorite treasures of this kind with people I havent met. And yet these books made such a distinct impression on me when I was young as to mold the sensibility of my being, that I am eager to share them now with you. In these days of rapid-fire assault on the senses through various media, books still have the potential to bring us into states of enchantment, even if their subject matter is a difficult or dark one. And it is this original enchantment that keeps our doors of perception and heart open.
So here follow excerpts from some of the books that became part of my inner world throughout the years. Regrettably, I can take no credit for developing them. But perhaps they helped to develop me, so that the work I do with writers now is subtly informed by all the nourishment these books, as well as others, gave me over the years.
"Descent of Angels": A story by Charles Baxter.
Based on a painting by John La Farge (Snow Field, Morning, Roxbury, 1864)
It is wonderful how sympathetic the use of imagination can make us. I found this very short story in a book on writers and poets who had been invited to write as they were moved to, based on any painting in the collection of the Chicago Art Museum. Baxter seems to have projected himself into the landscape and found something unexpected there: a human story of a divine visitation, and the awe and loneliness and tenderness in its wake.
Almost every afternoon during the winter of 1870, around two o'clock, the young mother bundled up her baby in his snowsuit and went out to sit on the bench in the backyard.
To read the rest, click here:
From The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. Originally published by Simon & Schuster, 1940.
A note from Naomi: This linguistically stunning, intimately told novel was written before the term "dysfunctional family" ever entered the lexicon. And yet its deep insight and compassion, even for the characters who have no insight or compassion, helped me understand the nature and workings of human beings caught in a mesh of a destructive family system more than all the psychology texts I read later on. For even with her great clear sight about the parent-characters failings, the author seems to love everyone in her story. And if the individuals in the story could not find their way to redemption, the authors clarity and love bring us at least to its edge, and to our own.
Chapter 3: Sunday a Funday
On Sunday morning the sun
bolted up brash and chipper from the salad beds of the Atlantic and with
a red complexion came loping towards them over the big fishing hole of
the Chesapeake. Before it was light the dooryard thrush began to drop
his song, quirt-quirt, hesitant, fretful, inquiring, angelically
solitary, from the old elm across the street. Sam whistled to him and
then nestlings fluttered, a beast fell to the ground, the early birds
got to work, and presently, by hearty creaking and concerted peeping,
they and Sam made the sky pale and flagged the daystar. Sam was always
anxious for morning. He was greedy for the daylight world, because the
fevers of the dark, and the creatures real to mans sixth, inward,
dark sense, which palpitates in such an agony about three oclock
in the morning, all disappeared at the darks first fading. When
the first ray came, he stood on feet of clay in a world of clay; the dread
other worlds of dreams were gone beyond comparison. In these fresh summer
mornings (it was fresh on the hill) when the earth perspired profusely,
Sam would often get up before daybreak, patter downstairs in bare feet,
just wearing bathing pants, and would go out on to the lawn, getting ready
for some job, getting the animals up, or standing under the trees, whistling
to the birds. But not today, because he had stayed awake most of the night.
evening in the month of May
and waited. There was a grunt next door in the twins room. The twins were turning over, trying to dig shuteye out of their pillows, closing their ears. Upstairs, Ernies voice joined in,
I met ole Satan by the way.
was a slippery sound like a little fish flopping on the stairs: that was
four-year-old Tommy hurrying down to his mothers room. Louisa, from
her bed across the sitting room, said sleepily, "Shh! Shh! Its early!"
Note: This is one of those books that rocked the world when it appeared, and then just about disappeared. The back of the 1960 paperback edition said, in large block type, "The top bestseller on two continents. A drama that seizes you and will not let you go." "Already published in sixteen languages, The Last of the Just has won world-wide acclaim as a monumental novel." The inside cover is filled with praise, including "A triumphant monument to the nobility and tenacity of the human spirit."
"According to [tradition], the world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov, indistinguishable from simple mortals; often they are unaware of their station. But if just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed-Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs."
beautifully written book begins with the prophecy of the Lamed-Vov, and
traces one such righteous savior through generations, to a European Jewish
child of our time (as Hitler was coming into power) named Ernie. Ernie
is ignorant of his legacy for almost half the book, until finally circumstances
require that those who know tell him. This changes his life and has repercussions
when, a few years later, he is brought, with others, into a concentration
camp. One of the astonishing powers of this book is that it evokes in
the reader that level of feeling for humanity as to render each of us,
at least in the act and the aftermath of reading, closer to the level
of the bottomless heart of the Lamed-Vov.
Chapter IV: The Just Man of the Flies
Frau Tuszynski had broken
her collarbone when she fell, but the child was intact. Nevertheless Mordecai,
slipping an arm under the barely scuffed knees, raised Ernie to shoulder
height and set off without a word into the alleyway, indifferent to the
prudent advice offered by the faithful lingering in the courtyard. Though
he forbade her sharply, Fraulein Blumenthal came stubbornly along behind
him, bleak, tiny, mumbling, prey to a vague religious fear.
But with his eyes looking
inward at his own dream, already planning the phrases of his "revelation,"
Mordecai did not hear the thin shouts of the urchins, who finally became
tired of his indifference. Only now and then, reminded of the lamb who
lay in his flesh-and-blood arms, he lowered a distraught mustache to the
curly, dusty, sweaty head of hair. Back at No. 8 Rigenstrasse, he carried
the child to his room and undressed him with unaccustomed, awkward gestures.
The boy opened terrified eyes and Mordecai repeated hollowly, "Dont
be afraid, my little love, dont be afraid. . . ." Then the child
found himself tucked in bed up to the neck, like an infant. Bolting the
door, Mordecai went to the straight chair beside the bed and in a hoarse
voice, as if strangled by all the years of silence he had imposed upon
it, told the prodigious history of the Levys from beginning to end.
-More to come-